The Brood: To Give and to Receive (A Reflection on Thanksgiving)

by Holly Mohr

Thanksgiving has never been my absolute favorite, but I’ve been working on rehabilitating it. It’s just not quite my style, on lots of levels.

Listen, I love the idea of setting aside intentional time for gratitude, for sharing abundance. I even love the idea of celebrating harvest and the cycles of the seasons.

The colonialism painted over in chipper, primary colors has never set well with me, even in my younger, more naïve years. The way we often speak of “giving thanks for what we have” while smiling saccharinely about those poor “less fortunate ones” has always struck a wrong chord in me, as well.

And if we’re being totally honest, I’m so not into traditional Thanksgiving food. It has always seemed like a cruel joke to me that the one day of the year you’re heartily expected to gorge yourself as a show of national pride is the same day you’re supposed to eat bland meat covered in sticky, unidentifiable sauce, along with some other brown clumps of . . .  something . . . and a roll of red . . . something else. (I know, I know, people love this stuff! They love it! I’m sorry! I’m not TRYING to be oppositional)! (Why can’t our national day of hedonism center around filet mignon with a bleu cheese crust, a French martini and some excellent Cabernet, a nice baked potato and some grilled asparagus? Is it just me? )

I’ve made my peace with the Thanksgiving menu. My husband likes to cook, and he makes some kickass spins on the more “traditional” foods. Our last few Thanksgivings have featured turkey stuffed with pears, bourbon mashed sweet potatoes, and homemade cranberry sauce that tastes like pie.

So Thanksgiving is a lot more delicious to me now, but I’m still left with those pesky existential questions. (What exactly are we celebrating? And should we really still be doing that? At least without saying a whole lot more things? And maybe making some sort of penance or reparation along with it?)

One of the most treasured pieces of wisdom I’ve learned from elders in my faith practice is that the Christian call is really about both giving and receiving. That is, recognizing that at all times, we are all in need in some way, and we all have something to give, something to offer, as well. That is not to undermine the really intense suffering and need present for so many people right now, or to equivocate the needs of any groups of people (some of whom continue to be marginalized at higher rates in our society by virtue of the choices we all keep making).

It is to say, though, that there is no “us” and “them.” In so many circles, there seems to be this messaging that “we” (whoever “we” are) are the “fortunate,” and it is “our” job to give our scraps (very proudly) to the “less fortunate,” patting ourselves on the back mightily as we pass the gravy. It’s as though if “we” keep proclaiming that “we” help the “less fortunate,” it will stave away the possibility of our ever becoming “the less fortunate” ourselves. We make giving about our own egos and class status, self-satisfied that we can give, making sure we never receive anything we can’t give back.

But those aren’t ontological categories. There is no such thing as “the less fortunate” and the “us.” There is only neighbor. It is equally important to be able to receive well (not to take, but to receive, in gratitude, in humility) as it is to give.

So many of us were taught the adage that it’s better to give than to receive. Sure, it’s better to give generously and freely than it is to hoard and think only of ourselves, but if we want to look from the Christian perspective of a totally humble God-human who poured himself out in both giving (his life, his resources, his whole self) and receiving (think of all the houses he stayed at, the food he accepted and demanded be shared), we need to reevaluate our transactional conceptions of giving and receiving.

Regardless of our state in life, we are neither wholly “less fortunate” (than whom)?! or fully fed. Each one of us has need, has deep brokenness that can only approach healing when we loosen our grip on being the “giver” and allow ourselves to receive in our need with some humility and gratitude. Gratitude over not having need is not real gratitude. Gratitude over giving and receiving in love and humility, that’s another story.

I’m trying to relearn Thanksgiving in my heart, to move beyond my natural cynicism (while still learning and trying to see clearly), and without looking at abundance as something “I have” that others lack (or vice versa). This Thanksgiving, I want to recognize what I bring and what I need, and to learn to share and receive both freely.

And yeah, I also want some kickass sweet potatoes. Let’s be honest: Thanksgiving is a multifaceted experience.

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